Tom Purcell, 11/6/2006 [Archive]

Veterans Day Column - The Veteran's Soul

The Veteran's Soul

By Tom Purcell

Today, Veterans Day, is a great day to read a book titled Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul.

In it, John McCain shares a story about of a fellow named Mike, shot down in 1967 and captured by the Vietnamese. Mike grew up poor in Alabama, wrote McCain. "He didn't wear shoes until he was 13 years old. Character was his only wealth."

Mike made a needle out of a piece of bamboo and gradually sewed scraps of red and white cloth into an American flag. He sewed the flag onto the inside of his prisoner's shirt. Every afternoon, the American prisoners hung Mike's flag onto the wall and said the Pledge of Allegiance.

One day, the guards discovered the flag and confiscated it. They beat Mike severely, puncturing his eardrum and breaking several ribs. Later, after everyone else had fallen asleep, Mr. McCain noticed Mike in the corner under the light bulb. His eyes nearly swollen shut, Mike quietly picked up his needle and began sewing a new flag.

The book offers numerous other tales about servicemen and women that will give you goose bumps and bring tears to your eyes.

One fellow explains how he was blown off the USS Astoria. He grabbed his rubber lifebelt and inflated it. It kept him afloat several hours. He became fond of the lifebelt, particularly since it was made in his home town of Akron, Ohio.

During his next leave, he told his family his survival tale and showed them the lifebelt. His mother picked it up and was amazed at what she saw. She'd been an inspector at a local rubber plant where the lifebelts were made. Her inspection number was on the lifebelt that saved her son's life.

Another man, whose family practiced bigotry and racism during his childhood, taught his own children to treat every man with dignity and respect, regardless of their skin color -- because of what he experienced in World War II.

He was Sgt. L.G. Pool, a Texas-born bull rider who he rode the Sherman tank he commanded with the same enthusiasm. He was always the first out front and the last to wrap up for the day. But one night, he ran out of fuel. He and his men, trapped five miles behind enemy lines, were "sitting ducks."

Two other men volunteered to travel five miles on foot carrying a five-gallon can of fuel. They were guided to Sgt. Pool's tank by the sight and sound of gunfire. Sgt. Pool and his men were saved because of their bravery of the volunteers. One was Native American, the other African-American.

Other stories celebrate the best of the human spirit. There's a story about four chaplains on a sinking ship. There weren't enough lifebelts to go around and each of the four took theirs off and strapped them onto others. The chaplains died when the ship went down.

After an American battalion pushed back the Germans near a small Belgian town, one GI heard church bells ringing. The town now in American hands, the GI went into town to celebrate Mass. He saw a priest begin the service, but there was no altar boy. The GI, a former altar boy, walked to the altar and performed the job.

After Mass he followed the priest into the sacristy. He kept his hands in the prayer position, while the priest removed his garments. Beneath his garments, the priest wore a German officer's uniform -- he was a chaplain in the German army. The men shook hands and parted, both exhilarated by the truth that "even in war our common humanity, under the same God, can triumph over hatred and division."

It's an oddity of human existence that in the midst of the hell of war, as human nature is at its most violent, human goodness and beauty are at their highest. Such goodness and beauty are occurring now in our current disputes. Hopefully, someone will write a book about that soon.

But it's something else to remember as we honor our veterans today, and pray for the men and women in harm's way now.

Tom Purcell's weekly political humor column runs in newspapers and Web sites across America. Contact him at Distributed by Cagle Cartoons syndicate, call Sales at (805) 969-2829 for reprint info.

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